Whitewashed: The Fourth Step of Development

In W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, a chapter is dedicated to what DuBois refers to as “Sorrow Songs,” or what other Black scholars and figures have referred to as “spirituals” or “freedom songs.” Du Bois claims that there are four steps of development of slave songs: the first being “African music, the second Afro-American, while the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land.” DuBois hints towards a fourth step developing, in which white music has been “distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody” (Hill, 751).

This excerpt from DuBois is featured in Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, edited primarily by Patricia Liggins Hill, amongst an immense compilation of other African American works throughout history. Of all the recorded works collected in Call & Response, there seems to be a central focus on the ever evolving yet culturally rooted music of Black folk. Amidst the various literary works, Black music in the form of spirituals, slave songs, ballads, jazz compositions, and much more seem to dominate the governing aesthetic of what has shaped the African American experience.

The governing aesthetic of African American music is not limited to the songs provided in the anthology; it can even be found in other included African American literary works. For example, Frances Watkin Harper’s poem “Songs for the People” is included, in which she advocates for strength and importance of African American music in inspiring its people (Hill, 352-353). Countee Cullen’s “Colored Blues Singer” poetically expresses in his appreciation for Blues singers being able to turn sorrow into beautiful music (Hill, 914). Also included is a series of Michael S. Harpers’ poems, three of which directly address three highly influential Black musicians: John Coltrane, James Brown, and Bessie Smith (Hill, 1648-1652). Black music is everywhere throughout this anthology; it serves to credit Black populations and creators as well as protect against the increasing problem of DuBois’ fourth step of development in which white music has been not only influenced by Black music but has even attempted to take it over in some respects. DuBois merely hinted at this phenomenon in his time, but this influence on white music has increased to the point that Black musical creations have become whitewashed, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable as Black creations. Thus, Call & Response’s governing aesthetic serves to protect and preserve against this.

 As a white young adult who considers himself well-versed in the music and musical trends of the past century (granted, mostly music created by white English-speakers, but most of which has been influenced by African American music), I immediately recognized that many of the songs featured in Call & Response were songs that I knew to be songs of African Americans. Songs featured in the anthology such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in nuh Watuh Childun,” “Follow the Drinking Gou’d” were typical textbook-tunes that were taught to me and my peers as “spirituals” that I would always be able to immediately identify as African American slave songs. Other featured songs like “Respect” by Otis Redding (as interpreted by Aretha Franklin), “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown, and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye were songs I’d known as unmistakable products of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. That being said, these inclusions should not reduce the anthology down to a basic collection of well-known works.

Even amongst songs that are generally recognized as Black literary works, the anthology’s collection serves to help listeners/readers make connections between works from different eras. Thus, certain artistic decisions from African American literary work can be traced back by exploring the anthology’s music. From personal experience, I had been long familiar with Richie Haven’s “Freedom” without knowing that the “Motherless Child” verses were based upon lyrical poetry spirituals from enslaved Africans until upon scanning the anthology (Hill, 51). As a fan of the song “The Weight” by The Band, I have appreciated Aretha Franklin’s cover for some time now; however, I had previously wondered why she changed the original lyrics “go down, Miss Moses,” to simply, “go down Moses.” This was clarified for me upon finding “Go Down, Moses” in the anthology, an old slave spiritual (Hill, 42). Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” along with an immense number of other African American songs reference the Jordan river. Upon review of the lyrics to “Hail Mary” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep River,” all 19th century African American spirituals, the artistic decision to use the Jordan river as a symbol in African American music is clear: it is a reference to birth, salvation, and rebirth amongst African Americans which served as a glimpse of hope (Hill, 237, 560). Lastly, I always understand the closing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an empowering statement he developed himself: “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I am free at last.” I credited the audience’s reaction to this statement as an in-the-moment agreement with his assertion. Until I reviewed Call and Response, I had no ideathat both the audience’s reaction and MLK Jr.’s choice of words were due to a referential understanding of the post-emancipation spiritual “Free at Las’” (Hill, 558). Call & Response helps solidify connections between past and recent Black literary traditions, which in itself emulates the call and response technique typical of Black music from which the title gets its name.

While the anthology does a great job of cataloging and crediting the work of African Americans, what must not be ignored by audiences is that many of the songs included in the anthology have been adapted by white voices, just as DuBois hinted to. The white adaptation of Black music was inevitable; without searching for the origin, listeners are often under the impression that these songs are works of the white interpreters. Due to the predominantly white society that we live in, many listeners of these white artists may be unaware of the Black origins in so much of their favorite music.

There are countless songs, only which a fraction of is mentioned in Call & Response, that I was exposed to by white artists and likely would not have known were Black tunes if it weren’t for my personal research. “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnson is a perfect example: I was exposed to the song initially by Eric Clapton (a white blues guitarist from England who is no stranger to receiving criticism for stealing the work of Black artists) just as many other white audiences were and still are today. Another tune I recognized from the anthology was “Go Tell It on de Mountain,” which was introduced to me and many white audiences by Peter, Paul, & Mary’s rendition. Peter, Paul, & Mary’s cover is significant because they have rewritten the traditional lyrics to incorporate the lyrical adaptations of “Go Down Moses” into the verses and the chorus (Hill, 561). I was aware that “Go Tell It on The Mountain” was a historically Black song, but I had always figured that Peter, Paul, & Mary had created the altered lyrics themselves considering how active they were in the Civil Rights Movement. Upon perusing the anthology, I found the lyrics to “Go Down Moses” to be eerily similar to the Peter, Paul, & Mary version and concluded that the latter had heavily based their lyrics upon the traditional verses of Black folk (Hill, 42-44).   

I was taken aback by the prevalence of other familiar tunes that I had no idea were created by Black voices. “Back Door Man” and “Big Boss Man” initially caught my attention. I was very familiar with the cover of the former by The Doors and the cover of the latter by the Grateful Dead. My personal research had failed to prove that they were created by Black artists until now. Upon this realization, the themes of the songs made sense. The lyrics to “Back Door Man” are clearly an allusion to a white-female desire for Black men but the simultaneous necessity for Black men to pursue them in secret (Hill, 1386-1387). The lyrics to “Big Boss Man” can be applied on a more universal level, but when centered around the Black experience there is an additional layer of intersectionality that affects how the narrator is treated by their boss. “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” were two of the biggest surprises. I’d heard them both performed many times by Pete Seeger and his other white contemporaries involved in the Civil Rights movement, thus I always figured they were covering his songs. It was to my shock to find out that these were not songs written in solidarity, but instead songs that were written in Black struggle and the latter adapted to the Civil Rights movement with an alteration of “I” to “We” in the title and the lyrics (Hill, 1093, 1393).

My surprise continued when I took a deeper look into three other songs that were created by Black voices but are generally recognized as race-less songs today by many. “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho” is often recognized as an African American spiritual, but has somewhat been obscured from its hidden emphasis on race as it has become popular within white society (I also speak from personal experience, as I went to a 95% white high school and heard this performed countless times at chorus concerts with no mention of its Black origins). The lyrics seem to compare the biblical story of the Battle of Jericho with the social struggle against slavery in which, eventually the “walls come tumbling down” (Hill 47). “When the Saints Go Marching In” has also been obscured from its Black origins as many marching bands and white Christian gospels have given their takes on the song. However, the lyrics in the context of this anthology show one of the many examples of Black faith in a judgment day and recognizing that then, in salvation, they will be saved, especially during a time when many African American felt unwelcome on earth in America (Hill. 561). Lastly, “This Little Light of Mine” is a spiritual that has been enjoyed by many as a lullaby and even covered famously by Bruce Springsteen. However, Call & Response provides us with a richer history: it was adapted for the Civil Rights movement and included clear references to the ostracization and discrimination that Black people felt in the country (specifically in places like “Birmingham” and “Mississippi”) pitted against the glimpse of hope, or “light of freedom,” that they felt would help them persevere. Without the anthology’s categorization of this as a “Gospel Adapted for the Liberation Movement,” I wouldn’t have known the transformative history of this song, as I’m sure many other don’t (Hill, 1392).

The fact that so many of these familiar and even some popular tunes were rendered unrecognizable as African American songs signals the importance of music in an African American anthology. Music is one of the easier aspects of culture to obscure from its origins due to its universality, especially when incorporated into a society where the origin culture does not hold the power. As DuBois asks in The Souls of Black Folk, “would America have been America without her Negro people?” (Hill 754). In regard to music, I believe no, but it would be easy for those that don’t know the rich and influential history of Black music in this country to believe yes. This is where the importance of an inclusive anthology with an overarching aesthetic comes in. One cannot even skim through the table of contents of Call & Response without noticing the sheer amount of music and musical references that make up this anthology, much of which is likely unbeknownst to readers (especially those of newer generations) as African American creations. This governing aesthetic not only ties together the African American experience, but it also ties together many of the loose ends, many of the misconceptions, that individuals may hold. This is where Call & Response is unique: databases from the internet will satisfy seekers with quick answers that are stagnated by the illusion of understanding; this anthology, however, will force the average listener and reader to question their understanding of American music and to further ponder what hasn’t been challenged yet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.